In Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda, an enterprising Saudi schoolgirl enters her school’s Koran recitation competition to raise money to buy a forbidden bicycle.
The Kid with a Bike by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Actors are often quoted as saying they start to create a character from their shoes upwards, because the way someone stands determines everything else about them. In Wadjda, the opening shot tracks the line of 12-year-old schoolgirls in the Koran class at ankle level. Out of all the shoes and white socks glimpsed beneath the shapeless full-length uniform they wear, Wadjda is the only one wearing Converse Hi-Tops. She’s rebellious, though in an endearingly cheeky way, enterprising, full of guile and blithely determined to either ignore or circumvent the everyday restrictions that women in Saudi Arabia live under. In the same way as Iranian cinema has become celebrated internationally by using children as its central characters as vehicles for expressing dissent that cannot be given voice under censorship, writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour has used young Wadjda’s desire to ride a bicycle as a metaphor for Saudi women’s desire for freedom of movement and expression in a country where they are not even permitted to drive or travel without a male relative. But, having said that, the film unrolls with a light touch. Though there is unfairness, hurt and disappointment, there are also slyly comic moments and a sense that people are mostly decent.
Wadjda envies her little friend Abdullah’s freedom to ride his bicycle and yearns for one of her own so they can race. But cycling is forbidden to girls for fear it would damage their virginity. Wadjda’s mother refuses to buy her the bike she has eyes for in the local shop, so she determines to find a way to earn the money for it herself. She makes and sells little bracelets to other girls at school until the strict headmistress, Ms Hussa, stops her. Then one day a tempting competition is announced, with prize money for the winner for reciting the Koran that would be more than enough to buy the bike. To everyone’s surprise, Wadjda enters and the headmistress is thrilled, believing Wadjda has at last become a reformed character under her influence.
As Wadjda‘s story progresses, the film tries to cover a gamut of women’s experiences and humiliations in an unwieldy society where men and women’s lives are segregated. (And maybe it tries to cover too much – in male terms there’s even a fleeting shot of a family celebrating the martyrdom of a suicide bomber.) Wadjda’s mother is only allowed to leave the house to travel to her work as a teacher with the driver her husband provides. Her husband doesn’t seem to live with her and Wadjda permanently, and is under his mother’s influence to take a second wife because she can’t provide a son. When he has male visitors, she cooks food for them and leaves it outside the door for them to take – she and Wadjda eat the leftovers. Schoolgirls in the playground have to hide themselves if a man outside can see them and must not let a man hear their voice outside – “Your voice is your nakedness”, headmistress Hussa tells them. Wadjda’s father has mapped out their family tree on the sitting room wall, but only the male names are on it. Wadjda adds hers on a Post-It, but it gets crumpled and discarded.
Yet women are also the agents of their own repression. Excessively strict headmistress Hussa (Ahd, a Saudi actress and film-maker now living in the US) is a high-heeled hypocrite, who, gossip says, has a secret male visitor. Wadjda’s mother is delighted when Wadjda is told she is old enough to wear a full abayah, and her heart breaks when the first she knows of her husband’s second wedding is by watching the celebrations take place from her vantage point on the roof – where she has to duck down in case any men see her. Not being able to go out freely, most of her life takes place at home in telephone conversations.
Haifaa Al-Mansour won an award for a previous documentary Women Without Shadows and Wadjda is another award winner (eight so far). It is the first film made in Saudi Arabia, and by a woman, the result of a co-production with Germany and Rotana, one of the companies owned by philanthropic relatively liberal Saudi multi-billionaire Prince Al Waleed. As you might imagine, there were practical problems for a female director and Al-Mansour had to direct outdoor location shots hidden inside a van by walkie-talkie as she would not have been allowed on the street – denied the short-lived freedom given to a schoolgirl.
There are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia but the film has been seen there and well received, according to its director. It is a television culture, says Al-Mansour, and Reem Abdullah, who plays Wadjda’s mother is a very well-known TV actress. For her, film was a step down, Al-Mansour says. Al-Mansour has coaxed remarkable performances out of everyone. Waad Mohamed as Wadjda is extraordinary. Al-Mansour discovered her at a children’s theatre workshop. She creates a rounded character where at home she wears jeans, gets told off for listening to pop music but winds the bicycle-shop owner round her little finger. She wheels and deals Abdullah into lugging his bike up to the flat roof – the outdoor space where life for women goes on – and letting her ride it up there – until her mother finds out. And she devotes formidable energies to her goal of winning the Koran contest and, with her mother’s tuition, delivers a spell-binding performance that stuns the judges. Her constant devoted friend and helper Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) is a natural.
Wadjda isn’t angry or sentimental. Rather it ends up being a heart-warming and positive story with some laughs and tears along the way. Wadjda wins the Koran competition, but when the headmistress asks her what she’s going to spend the prize money on and she replies “A bicycle”, it’s taken away from her and given to good causes in Palestine instead. But her mother buys it for her anyway with the money she was saving to buy a killer dress to win back her husband. And Wadjda finally rides her bike along to the end of the street from where she can see the big wide world outside. Last week in London, director Al-Mansour said that, since – and maybe because – she made the film, there has been a change of heart in Saudi Arabia and girls are now allowed to ride bicycles – albeit in enclosed parks and under male supervision.
Wadjda is released on 19th July 2013 in the UK